When Carbon Leaf comes to town, nothing stops me from getting to the show – barring freak accidents and financial issues. A cancellation had already deterred my girlfriend and myself from seeing them several months ago, but thankfully they were returning and all previous ticket purchases would be honored. So I asked off of work early so that we could get underway, only to encounter gridlocked traffic as we neared our destination. Curse my luck! It turned out to be a traffic accident far ahead, not helped by the numerous exits that were all merging onto this meager two-lane road. Thankfully, not only did no one appear to be hurt, but we managed to arrive just as the opening act was starting. It was rather obvious, as she told the audience, “Thank you all for showing up so promptly!” just as we walked through the door.
The opener was Seattle’s very own Jenn Grinels, performing as a one-woman show. Armed with just a microphone and acoustic guitar, she proceeded to amaze us with her humorous attitude and stunning voice. It hasn’t been since Frank Zappa that I’ve seen an artist do audience participation in the way she conducted it – enlisting the entire crowd as a horn section for one part of her song, while having random backup dancers from the audience choreograph their own interpretive performance while she sang. It was quite an experience! And while we had listened to some of her music online before showing up for the concert, I must say that her recordings don’t do her justice. Later on, after the show, we had a chance to touch base and tell her what an astounding job she did. She was overjoyed by our comments and was very approachable. If you are not seeing Grinels live, the music pales in comparison to the energy she unleashes in person. Do yourself a favor and watch this video of her performing Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)”. While it doesn’t give you the full picture, you’ll have a faint understanding of what you’re missing.
As she exited the stage, the theme song from Game Of Thrones commenced and red light washed over the entire venue. Being fans of that show, this was thrilling and made us all that more anxious. As each member of the band emerged the crowd’s cheers grew louder and louder. Amplifiers sparked to life, the ambiance of the speaker’s distorted gain filled the air, and finally a vaguely familiar melody came forth. While I wouldn’t call Carbon Leaf a jam band, there is certainly an element of that to their live performances. I’ve seen them three times now and not one of their shows has heard a song played the same way. Even when playing fan favorites, they find a way to reinvent it so as to keep the listener guessing about what is upon them. This opening song, “Comfort,” which normally begins on a mandolin was instead introduced with a winding guitar melody, reminiscent, but not quite the same as the one we all know. Other tracks throughout the night found their own reinterpretations, such as the full-blown rock version of “Miss Hollywood” and the mellow, jazz lounge version of “Paloma”.
The evening continued with a collection of classics and new songs. “We’re almost done with our new album. We just released one back in February, but we got anxious, so we wrote another,” vocalist Barry Privett told us. The last album, Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle, was a fantastic disc of Celtic-inspired sing-alongs (well, I sing along even if it isn’t intended) and well-crafted instrumentals which I reviewed already. The new album, Constellation Prize, just came out! Anyway, he invited us to join in their call-and-response section of “She’s Gone […For Good This Time]” and the new tune “Love Rain Down,” which has a whistling chorus. Can’t whistle? Neither can I! As Privett noted, during a previous concert a drunk fan came up to him and told him that it’s impossible to whistle when you’re drunk, so she just did the best she could, which probably looked hilarious to the people standing next to her. Close to the end of the set they all moved to the front of the stage, Jon Markel lugging his huge stand-up bass and Jason Neal bringing his brush and snare drum, while the others grabbed their own acoustic accoutrements and gathered around a single microphone. Shhhhhh! This has become a regular part of their set, where the audience becomes completely silent and listen in awe as the five-piece communes in an old-time style. There’s something remarkable about an entire room singing a song at only the volume of a whisper. This wouldn’t be the end of the show, however special and together it made everyone feel. No, the band was going to open up once more, and only left the stage after a drawn out performance of “Let Your Troubles Roll By,” featuring a stirring guitar solo from multi-instrumentalist Carter Gravatt.
As we stood there in the dark, we were once again filled with that anxious feeling, knowing the show wasn’t over. And sure enough, once again, they emerged onstage to cheers from the audience. Barry walked up to the microphone, paused for a moment, and said, “…we were saving that last song for our encore. It was supposed to be the song that walked us off the set, but our drummer, Jason, decided to go into it a little early. Jason Neal, everyone!” Despite the re-arranging of events, it turned in our favor! “Who wants to hear another new track?” The roar of the crowd was an emphatic YES! “If it’s any consolation, this will be the first time we’ve played this one in public.” We were then presented with “Tombstone vs Ashes,” which we were told was an uplifting tune. Not necessarily uplifting, but certainly good. They closed once more with another drawn in, old-time rendition of “Learn To Fly.” As the last whisper faded and the band bowed, you knew that like all good things, the concert was coming to an end.
But the experience continued…
Carbon Leaf are popular, no doubt about it, but they’re very down-to-Earth people. After the set was over they came out to the merch area and began socializing with old fans and new ones. We spoke to everyone, except Jason Neal, and they were all warm and friendly individuals. I got to “cut in line” with guitarist Terry Clark several times by other excited fans, even though we were in the process of shaking hands. It was no bother to me, and we laughed about it when we finally had a chance to speak. Carter, who otherwise seems very solemn on stage, was talkative and full of smiles as we discussed his gear and great records by artists we both enjoy. The point is, when you see these guys in concert, you’re not just seeing a great show, you’re seeing great people who really enjoy what they’re doing. And like laughter, the joy they feel as they play is infectious and it gets into you before you know it. It’s not just about the music, but how the music pulls you into this makeshift community for a little while and makes you feel like you’re all family. A Carbon Leaf Family.
Carbon Leaf are currently on tour! Be sure to catch them on the road. Tell ‘em Barry sent you! It’ll confuse the hell out of them.
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Buy the new album, Constellation Prize: From The Band!